NEW DELHI, India – Rattling his war saber, India's army chief said that his country is "ready for war" with Pakistan and said that any nation attacking with nuclear weapons "shall be punished."
Gen. Sunderajan Padmanabhan said the buildup of thousands troops on the border between India and Pakistan was not an exercise and that the massing had brought the two nuclear neighbors "quite close to an actual war."
The historically tense situation between the two nations has worsened since a Dec. 13 attack on India's Parliament that New Delhi blames on Pakistan. The root of the tension is India's rule over part of the disputed northern territory of Kashmir. New Delhi has demanded Islamabad crack down on Pakistan-based Islamic militants battling Indian troops there.
In Pakistan, a senior government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf would announce comprehensive measures against religious violence and extremism in a speech Saturday. The official news agency confirmed that Musharraf will speak in a televised address at 7:30 p.m. (9:30 a.m. EST Saturday).
Padmanabhan reiterated New Delhi's policy that India would only use nuclear weapons to defend itself, and not to launch an initial attack.
Indian Defense Minister George Ferenandes sought to soften the war rhetoric. "We are pursuing the diplomatic efforts in the belief that they will yield results," he said.
In Kashmir Friday, Indian and Pakistani troops traded fire Friday over the cease-fire line dividing the Himalayan region. The Indian army said it killed eight soldiers and destroyed 19 bunkers on the Pakistani side in the fire. There was no immediate Pakistani comment. Indian security also fought with Islamic guerrillas in several gunbattles in parts of Kashmir that left six militants and a civilian dead, Press Trust of India reported.
The Pakistani government — which has said it seeks dialogue to defuse the crisis — dismissed Padmanabhan's comments and blamed India for initiating troop movements and sparking tensions.
"We have been telling the world about the Indian military buildup for the last two weeks ... which is causing friction between the two countries," Gen. Rashid Quereshi told The Associated Press in Islamabad.
The Indian army chief's comments were some of the strongest yet by the military about the standoff.
"Yes, we are fully ready," Padmanabhan told journalists when asked if India was ready for a conventional war.
He said an assault on Islamic militant camps India says are located in the Pakistan-held part of Kashmir could be "viable."
Padmanabhan called the situation at the border "serious." India is planning military exercises in two border states this month, but the general clarified that the broader buildup of troops at the border was no practice run.
"This (deployment) we are doing for real. We have not gone for exercises. We are ready for war," he said.
"When two forces are opposite each other you are quite close to an actual war, but an actual war doesn't happen like that," he said. "It is governments that have to set about the business of war."
He reiterated India's declared policy of no first-strike with nuclear weapons. But any country that launches a nuclear strike against India "shall be punished, and so severely that their continuation thereafter in any form of fray will be doubtful," he said.
The United States has been calling for dialogue between the two countries, while urging Musharraf to take stronger action against militant groups.
President Bush urges both sides "to recognize the importance of fighting terrorism," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters Friday on Air Force One as the president flew to Pennsylvania.
"India and Pakistan have a mutual enemy in terrorism, not each other," Fleischer said.
Secretary of State Colin Powell was to arrive in New Delhi on Jan. 18 after a stop in Pakistan, an Indian official said Friday.
In a meeting at the White House on Thursday, Bush assured India's home minister, Lal K. Advani, that Washington will press Pakistan to crack down further on militants.
India accuses Pakistan's spy agency of backing two Islamic militant groups in the attack on Parliament, which left nine Indians and the five assailants dead. Pakistan denies the claim.
The bodies of the five assailants were buried at an Islamic cemetery in New Delhi on Friday under heavy guard by Indian police. India says the five were Pakistani citizens, but Pakistan says they are not its nationals and refused to take the bodies.
Pakistan has arrested some 300 militants since the Parliament attack. But India says camps still exist in Pakistan's part of Kashmir and militants continue to operate.
India has long accused Pakistan of waging a "proxy war" against it by allowing Islamic militant groups to recruit, raise funds and train in camps on its soil and in the portion of the disputed Kashmir region that Pakistan controls.
Pakistan denies giving military or financial support to the militants, saying it only gives them political backing in their cause — the battle against India's rule in two-thirds of Kashmir.
Kashmir, which both nations claim, has been at the center of two of the three wars fought by India and Pakistan since 1947.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.